Special to the JTA His Name Was Ben Gurion
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Special to the JTA His Name Was Ben Gurion

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David Ben Gurion, despite enormous pressure from the U.S. and the doubts of many of his colleagues, proclaimed the State of Israel. A lesser leader might have hesitated and postponed a decision, but he charged ahead. In declaring statehood, Ben Gurion had come a long way.

Before the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, he had urged Jews to support the Turks in World War I so as to win from them the promise of autonomy in Palestine. But when the Turkish authorities cracked down on Zionism, he switched sides and championed the British cause.

In the 1930’s, when Palestinian Arabs were rising up in revolt against Jewish settlement and the British mandate, Ben Gurion favored a Jewish homeland but felt that statehood should be deferred until the country was sufficiently populated with Jews. By the early 1940’s, he had come around to favoring the creation of a Jewish commonwealth. By 1948, he was prepared to declare statehood.

Ben Gurion fathered the modern Israeli army and considered it a tool of national unity. As the War of Independence raged, he disbanded all Jewish militias, including the Palmach, the Haganah and the Irgun, and molded them into the new Israel Defense Force, the IDF.

" … I see in it (IDF) not only the fortress of our security … but also an educational force for national unification, and a loyal instrument for welding together the dispersed ethnic groups," he said.


Ben Gurion viewed aliya as one of his chief nation-building tasks. He promulgated the Law of Return, which enabled Jews to claim immediate Israeli citizenship, and he diverted scarce financial resources to ensure that the new arrivals from all corners of the world would be properly integrated.

"Aliya precedes everything else," he was fond of saying. "For in aliya there is security, in aliya there is renaissance …"

Ben Gurion, in opposition to the United Nations, declared Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. "Jewish Jerusalem is an organic and inseparable part for Israel, just as it is an inseparable part of Jewish history, Jewish religion and the Jewish soul," he wrote.

Ben-Gurion, though totally secular, signed an historic agreement with Jewish Orthodox parties granting them certain concessions in return for their acceptance of a Jewish State. The so-called "status quo" in religion was frayed at the edges and alienated many Israelis, but it has helped preserve Israel’s national unity.

Ben Gurion turned Israeli foreign policy westward, away from neutrality, and sowed the seeds of Israel’s alliance with the U.S. He laid the foundation for Israel’s relationship with West Germany, and he cultivated African and Asian nations.

He opened up the Negev, the sandy, desolate wasteland which comprises two-thirds of Israel’s land area. But for all his efforts, the Negev still remains sparsely populated and, in comparison to the West Bank, a financial stepchild.

Despite all his successes, Ben Gurion failed at peace-making. He wanted to come to terms with Israel’s Arab neighbors, but could not do so. In general, he adopted a hardline approach to the Arabs, permitting the IDF to retaliate for each blow delivered by the enemy.

According to some historians, Ben Gurion relied too heavily on retaliatory raids. They claim that if he had been less provocative, that if he had not ordered the assault on Egyptian positions in the Gaza Strip in February of 1955, Israel might have had a chance to enter into meaningful talks with Egypt, the leader of the Arab world.

In retrospect, Ben Gurion’s fateful decision to collude with France and Britain in the 1956 Arab-Israeli war was probably a strategic error, for it branded Israel with the stamp as a collaborator of colonial European powers.

After his retirement, and particularly in wake of the 1967 Six-Day War, Ben Gurion’s attitude mellowed. A hawk during much of his tenure as Prime Minister, he turned into something of a dove in his declining years.

"… we must return to the pre-1967 borders," he told an interviewer several years before his death. "Peace is more important than real estate." David Ben Gurion usually knew what was good for Israel.

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